GV321      Half Unit
Concepts and Controversies in Political Theory

This information is for the 2020/21 session.

Teacher responsible

Prof Leigh Jenco


This course is available on the BSc in Government, BSc in Government and Economics, BSc in Government and History, BSc in International Social and Public Policy with Politics, BSc in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, BSc in Politics, BSc in Politics and Economics, BSc in Politics and History, BSc in Politics and International Relations, BSc in Politics and Philosophy and BSc in Social Policy with Government. This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit. This course is not available to General Course students.

This course is capped at two groups.


Students will be expected to have some familiarity with political theory (e.g., having taken GV100 Introduction to Political Theory, or GV262 Contemporary Political Theory or some other, relevant module). 

Course content

This course is devoted to the advanced study of key concepts and related controversies in political theory. In 2020-2021, the course will look at the concept of human nature, and the kinds of questions raised about this concept in the history of political thought. This class will focus on close textual reading of European and Chinese primary sources (in translation), supplemented by secondary sources in intellectual and political history to contextualize and challenge the claims of each text. Students will be expected to read the primary materials every week, alongside at least some of the recommended readings. The arrangement of the readings is roughly chronological but seminar discussions will always encourage transhistorical comparison and theorization (that is, the careful extension of arguments from one context to apply in another).

What is a human, and how do we know one when we see one? To answer this very big question, this class will focus specifically on how imperial expansion in Europe and China has historically provoked questions about what kind of things human beings are, what qualities they minimally possess, and what if anything they are owed simply by virtue of being human. As we will see, the motivations for these questions vary across time, space, and individual thinkers, ranging from attempts to protect foreign others from colonial brutality, to arguments for the displacement and in some cases genocide of native peoples. We will consider in what kinds of circumstances such debates emerge, on what kinds of assumptions they rely, and what kinds of human society these visions of human nature make possible or justify.

This course does not require any prior knowledge of any Chinese or European thinker, although a general interest in the history of political thought would be helpful. The only prerequisite is one prior course in political theory, such as GV100 or GV262.


This course provides a combination of classes and lectures totalling 20 hours in the LT. This year, some or all of this teaching will be delivered through a combination of online and on-campus lectures and classes. There will be a reading week in LT Week 6.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to submit a 1500 word formative essay by the end of week 6 (reading week).

Indicative reading

Wang, Yangming. Instructions For Practical Living And Other Neo-Confucian Writing. Translated by Wing-tsit Chan. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963.

Locke, John. Locke: Political Essays. Edited by Mark Goldie. Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Thompson, Laurence G. “The Earliest Chinese Eyewitness Accounts of the Formosan Aborigines.” Monumenta Serica 23 (1964): 163–204.

Vitoria, Francisco de. Vitoria: Political Writings. Edited by Anthony Pagden. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.


Essay (60%, 3000 words) in the ST.
Class participation (20%) and group presentation (20%) in the LT.

The group presentation will be focussed on timelines, and the class participation element will be assessed by quality and quantity of participation in seminar discussion, blog posts reflecting on group presentations of your peers, in the LT.

Important information in response to COVID-19

Please note that during 2020/21 academic year some variation to teaching and learning activities may be required to respond to changes in public health advice and/or to account for the situation of students in attendance on campus and those studying online during the early part of the academic year. For assessment, this may involve changes to mode of delivery and/or the format or weighting of assessments. Changes will only be made if required and students will be notified about any changes to teaching or assessment plans at the earliest opportunity.

Key facts

Department: Government

Total students 2019/20: Unavailable

Average class size 2019/20: Unavailable

Capped 2019/20: No

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Communication
  • Specialist skills